City Dharma: Keeping Your Cool in the Chaos
By Arthur Jeon
Most beliefs are a result of familial, cultural, or religious conditioning-the small self programmed from birth to think, feel, and act a certain way. We are all strongly attached to our beliefs, but this conditioning is simply an accident of birth-a version of the Crips and the Bloods, the Muslims and the Jews, the Protestants and the Catholics, who, if they were born on a different block, would be fighting to the death for the opposite set of beliefs and values.
You are born in one family and you are a Jew. Another and you are a Muslim. Another still and you are sacrificing goats to worship your god. Or you are born white, black, or brown . . . and the conditioning begins.
The conditioning is founded in a truth, but it is not the ultimate truth. It feels real, but it is not the ultimate reality. We will look at what lies underneath this apparent reality, but first let's look deeply at conditioning-how it is created and how it is passed on from one generation to the next.
Recently I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, a city undergoing a massive shift in thinking after the end of apartheid. While there has been incredible progress in the cities of South Africa toward integration and upward mobility for blacks, visiting the countryside is sometimes like stepping back in time. I traveled deep in the Drakensberg, a stunning area of South Africa characterized by mountains, mesas, and rolling farmland. Although miles from the carjackings that occur in Joburg, I had an experience that demonstrated the extent to which conditioning is inherited, created, and reinforced-a process that is repeated in cities and countries the world over, whether the conditioning is homophobia, misogyny, or racism.
It all started innocently enough. I was hiking with my friend Helena, her nephew Drumie, age nine, and two dogs. The sun shone hot and bright as we followed the trail along a muddy river and into a deep canyon. We were miles from civilization and picking up African porcupine quills, shouting out each find, and inspecting the beautiful white and black quills with the avidness of connoisseurs.
After a while we heard the sound of a lamb bleating its head off. We grabbed the dogs to keep them from attacking it and tried to locate the lamb. I saw a flash of white and floppy ears disappear into tall grass across the river. I couldn't believe my eyes. How had this lamb gotten here, so deep into such pristine wilderness? Alter some discussion, we decided that Drumie and I would swim across and rescue the lamb, while Helena would take the dogs farther upriver to look for a crossing point.
As we made our way across the river and scrambled into the tall grass, the bleating stopped. After locating our tossed .shoes, we started searching the grass until I almost stepped on it. The lamb was tiny and had collapsed. It tried to stand hut was too weak. I gently picked up the lamb, which didn't struggle, and gasped at the fresh beauty of it, with its spindly legs and white fleece (the softest I'd ever felt). It had long eyelashes and floppy ears, and smelled of lavender-magical and otherworldly. It weakly nursed on my finger as we carried it three miles over hills and barbed-wire border fences to the nearest dirt road. Both Drumie and I agreed it felt like we were holding God in our arms.
We were trudging toward a distant farm, under a now relentless sun, when a battered pickup truck approached us and stopped with a skid, spewing dirt from its tires. At first I thought it was an old man driving, seeing only the glasses, the sandy hair, and the stocky body going to fat.
"We found this lamb in the wilderness by the river."
"It's from my dad's farm," the driver said. "Come, let me take it."
The driver got out of the truck, and at that point I realized he wasn't an old man at all. He was a heavyset boy wearing thick glasses and carrying a stick, which he used as a pointer.
"Can we come with you?" I asked, reluctant to relinquish the lamb until I saw it to its rightful place by its mother.
"Sure," said the boy. "Get in-I have to get diesel where this lamb belongs, anyway."
Drumie and I got in the truck, the lamb on our laps. The boy's name was Thabo, an African name and an unusual one for a white boy. He was thirteen and the son of the farmer who owned the land bordering the wilderness area in which we were hiking.